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In Remote Afghan Province, Mullen Finds Daunting Need
Joint Chiefs Leader Assesses War U.S. Is Reshaping

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 2009

ZABOL, Afghanistan -- In this impoverished province on the Pakistani border, the U.S. military's most senior officer came face to face with the consequences of nearly eight years of American indifference and neglect in Afghanistan.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, sat across from Gov. Mohammad Ashraf Naseri, who nervously stroked his salt-and-pepper beard and ran through his problems. Taliban fighters regularly pass unmolested across Zabol's border with Pakistan. In recent months, they have launched a campaign to blow up the region's roads and force teachers to shut down local schools. This spring, they sliced off the ears of a defiant teacher.

"Do you have any help here, or are you all alone?" Mullen asked during a visit last week.

Naseri replied that the provincial government consisted of him and four other Afghans. There was no money coming from the central government in Kabul. The only funds in the area came from the harvesting of illegal poppies, which supported the Taliban.

Mullen had come to Afghanistan for the second time in the past month for a closer look at a war that President Obama has vowed to set on a new course. The admiral found a war effort still hampered by a shortage of civilian and military reconstruction experts, an Afghan government that barely exists beyond the capital and a U.S. military command that knows it must work hard to overcome the mistrust caused by years of aerial bombings and house-to-house raids.

In the next few months, the Obama administration plans to move more than 20,000 U.S. soldiers into southern Afghanistan in an effort to drive the Taliban from places such as the southeastern province of Zabol. To prevent the area from quickly falling back into chaos, the president's strategy places a heavy emphasis on rebuilding provincial governments and local economies shattered by more than three decades of war. "Combat operations are not the answer here," Mullen told a group of about three dozen U.S. troops after his meeting with the governor last week. "The answer is development so that people have a way to sustain themselves."

The new strategy, however, is hampered by the heavy demand in Iraq and Afghanistan for civilian and military reconstruction experts. There are only 13 U.S. civilian development experts in all of southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban movement is strongest and the local economy is almost entirely dependent on opium production. The top U.S. commander in the south, Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, advised Mullen last week that a tenfold increase in the south is necessary to meet the region's needs, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told lawmakers Thursday that the State Department is struggling to find 500 civilians to work in Afghanistan. "This is obviously a challenging recruitment," she said.

In eastern Afghanistan, where the reconstruction budget increased 43 percent this year to $683 million, U.S. commanders said they have had to put long-planned reconstruction projects on hold because they don't have enough military engineers, civil affairs soldiers and contracting experts to coordinate with local companies and inspect their work. Last month, Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, sent out a classified message to the Pentagon asking for big increases in the number of soldiers in these specialties deployed to Afghanistan, said a military official who had reviewed the document.

Part of the problem facing the Pentagon is that the demand inside Iraq for engineering, reconstruction and military police units -- known inside the Pentagon as enablers -- has not abated in recent months as the need has surged in Afghanistan. "There is an incredible tension," said a senior military official involved in the troop deployments. "Even as we draw down in Iraq, there is no commensurate drawdown of enablers. In fact, there is more pressure for them rather than less." Senior military officials are looking to shift money in the 2010 defense budget to fund more of these specialty units, which will take years to build. In the near term, U.S. officials are considering retraining some Air Force and Navy troops to fill some of the shortfalls.

Building new combat engineer, civil affairs and military police units, which are all essential in counterinsurgency and nation-building operations, has not been as high a priority inside the military as adding large combat brigades in recent years.

Ultimately, military commanders said the United States needs to do a better job scouring the government for civilian experts in such areas as governance and agriculture to help in Afghanistan. Many of those civilian experts are in Iraq. In the largely peaceful Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, there are more than two dozen U.S. civilian development experts -- twice the number in all of southern Afghanistan, an area military officials have identified as their top priority. "We must generate a significant amount of civilian capacity on the ground in Afghanistan immediately -- this summer," Mullen said.

In areas of eastern Afghanistan, where the United States has pushed more combat troops in recent months, Taliban fighters seem to have melted away rather than challenge American combat units. In Wardak and Logar provinces south of Kabul, the size of the U.S. force has increased to almost 3,000 troops, up from about 300 in January.

"The locals will tell you that the Taliban heard that they were coming and simply left," said Maj. Gen. Michael S. Tucker, the deputy U.S. commander in Kabul. U.S. military PowerPoint briefing slides boast of having achieved "almost irreversible momentum" in the eastern part of the country.

The Afghan leaders with whom Mullen met last week, however, weren't nearly as bullish as the American military commanders. The needs in places like Zabol, where the United States has almost nothing to show after nearly eight years of war, are immense. Only 28 of the province's 136 schools are functioning and less than 10 percent of the population can read. Three decades of fighting have destroyed the irrigation canals and dams that once helped direct water to the province's farms. Poppy, which is used to make opium, is one of the few crops that can grow in the drought-stricken land.

Last week, Mullen pressed the Zabol governor to outline his most critical needs. The black-turbaned Naseri asked for more Afghan police and army forces to guard the porous border with Pakistan and told Mullen that U.S. and NATO forces need to work harder to reduce civilian casualties, which have alienated the local population. In late December, U.S. troops in the province mistakenly killed six Afghan police officers and one civilian during an assault on the hideout of a suspected Taliban commander.

Mullen promised that the United States will work harder to minimize civilian deaths.

"I want to apologize to you and the Afghan people for past mistakes in this area," Mullen told him. "We understand how serious an issue this is."

Mostly, Mullen tried to convince the skeptical governor that the United States is bringing a new sense of urgency to rebuilding Afghanistan along with the addition of 21,000 American troops. Senior U.S. commanders describe the next two years as the most critical of the Afghan war.

Naseri, who had moved several hundred miles from his wife and 10 children to take the governor's job in Zabol, seemed concerned that U.S. forces might leave before their job was done.

"Building capacity here in Zabol is going to take some time," he told Mullen. "This is not something that can be accomplished in two months."

"I agree it is going to take time," the admiral replied. "But I also worry that the U.S. is not moving fast enough."

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